For months now, you sure have been bombarded with rosy things promised by the new Wi-Fi 6E — the extension of the Wi-Fi 6 standard. Rest assured that most of what you’ve heard is marketing hypes.
Indeed, Wi-Fi 6E sure is not all it’s been cracked up to be. Don’t get me wrong! It’s still a cool and valuable addition to existing Wi-Fi bands, just not the way you might think.
With that out of the way. Let’s get real. (And keep those hard-earned dollars in your pocket, for now.)
Dong’s note: I first published this piece on May 22, 2020, and updated it on April 6, 2021, to add additional relevant information after months of real-world testing.
What is Wi-Fi 6E, exactly? It’s a new freeway!
In a nutshell, Wi-Fi 6E is an extension of Wi-Fi 6 that operates in the all-new 6GHz frequency band instead of the traditional 2.4GHz or 5GHz band that’s been around for more than a decade.
(OFDMA and TWT help improve overall Wi-Fi efficiency and mobile clients’ battery life, respectively, over the previous Wi-Fi 5 standards.)
In terms of speed, Wi-Fi 6E is the same as Wi-Fi 6. Generally, you’ll get 600Mbps per stream via an 80MHz channel or 1200Mbps via a 160MHz channel.
So then why do we even need Wi-Fi 6E, you might wonder.
The upside of 6E: It’s all about the channel width
We don’t need Wi-Fi 6E. We want it. But let’s back up a bit. To understand Wi-Fi 6E, we first need to know why the existing 5GHz band of Wi-Fi 6 just doesn’t cut it.
The pain of DFS and mixed clients
Wi-Fi transmits data via channels, measured in Megahertz (MHz). If a Wi-Fi band (5GHz, 2.4GHz, or 6GHz) is a freeway, channels are lanes. Wider means more space needed and potentially faster speed.
And to deliver the top performance, Wi-Fi 6 needs to operate in the 160MHz channel width, currently the widest.
And just like a freeway, to get a wider lane, you put two narrow ones together. Generally, a 40MHz channel consists of two contiguous 20MHz ones, 80MHz equal two contiguous 40MHz, and two contiguous 80MHz channels combine into a single 160MHz one.
(Consequently, a 160MHz channel gobbles up eight contiguous 20MHz channels. By the way, if you replace “MHz” with “meter,” you’ll get a better idea of the road analogy we use here.)
As you can imagine, space runs out fast, and on the 5GHz band, we can get about two 160MHz channels. And here’s the biggest issue: Not all 5GHz channels are exclusively used for Wi-Fi. (It’s like a road is not only for cars but also bikes and other types of vehicles.)
Indeed, some channels are reserved for other more consequential applications, including radars, which get the first dibs. A Wi-Fi broadcaster automatically changes to another available, possibly narrower, channel if radar signals are present. (This is like how a car needs to get off a bike lane when a cyclist gets on it.)
For this reason, these shared channels are called Dynamic Frequency Selection or DFS. When the DFS channel switching occurs, clients will be briefly disconnected from the Wi-Fi network.
And here’s the fact: On the 5GHz band, you can not have a 160MHz channel without using DFS — there are just not enough contiguous non-DFS sub-channels to form the 160MHz width.
(This is like if you want to pull an Airbus 380 on a freeway, you’ll likely have to use all of the lanes and even the shoulder to make a single “lane” for the job. The point is don’t count on the space availability at all times — something likely will have to give.)
In other words, 5GHz 160MHz channels are either fully or partially DFS, as you can see in the diagram below.
Consequently, when you live within tens of miles of an airport or weather radar station, your Wi-Fi 6 router likely appears not as “reliable” as you’d like — you’ll get brief disconnections now and then. This is especially painful when you play online games or use video conferencing often.
Even if that doesn’t bother you, keep in mind that many existing Wi-Fi clients only use 40MHz or 20MHz channels. So, all home Wi-Fi networks have to struggle between compatibility and performance.
Extra: Wi-Fi 6E vs. other Wi-Fi standards
|Common Name||Standard||Availability||Top Speed per Stream||Operating |
|Security Protocol||Frequency Bands||Status|
|N/A||802.11g||2003||54Mbps||20 MHz||Open |
or Wireless N
|60 GHz||Limited Use|
6GHz band to the rescue
Wi-Fi 6E deals with this spectrum shortage and conundrum by using an entirely new frequency band — the 6GHz with 1200MHz wireless spectrum. This opens hardware up to large Wi-Fi-exclusive airspace, including seven 160MHz or fourteen 80MHz channels.
As a result, Wi-Fi 6E devices will operate freely without the need to accommodate older Wi-Fi standards or spectrum regulations.
In other words, with Wi-Fi 6E, your devices don’t need to bother with 20MHz, 40MHz, or even 80MHz anymore. (It’s like a brand-new freeway with special lanes optimized for speed.)
On top of that, you won’t have to be concerned about the potential sporadic, brief disconnections caused by radar signals.
(And in my experience, so far, Wi-Fi 6E clients — there are currently just a couple of them — indeed can connect at top negotiated speeds easily and deliver impressive sustained throughput rates. You can read more about this on my reviews of Wi-Fi 6E routers.)
So to recap, if a Wi-Fi band is a freeway, then channels are lanes, and we have this crude analogy:
- The 2.4GHz is like a road that includes only small lanes for bikes.
- The 5GHz is a freeway with lanes for bikes, cars, buses, and trucks.
- The 6GHz (Wi-Fi 6E) only has special tracks for a high-speed rail system.
And that brings us to the main shortcomings of Wi-Fi 6E.
Wi-Fi 6E’s shortcomings
Yes, this is the “get real” part. Wi-Fi 6E has a fair share of drawbacks. It’s definitely not the end-all-be-all of Wi-Fi.
Wi-Fi 6E vs. Wi-Fi 6: New hardware required
To use the new 6GHz band, you’ll need a broadcaster, like a router, and a client that supports it, such as a phone, laptop, or desktop adapter card. No existing Wi-Fi equipment, including the latest Wi-Fi 6 routers, works with this band. (This is like you can’t drive a car or ride a bike on rail tracks.)
(Initially, it was rumored that some new Wi-Fi 6 routers already have Wi-Fi 6E-ready hardware, which can be activated via firmware updates. However, by the end of 2020, this proved to be completely false.)
This shortcoming is the same as the move from the single-band (2.4GHz) to dual-band (2.4GHz + 5GHz) that took place back when Wi-Fi 4 debuted in 2009.
Extra: Wi-Fi 6E brings in a new type of tri-band equipment
Like the dual-band case, for backward compatibility, you can expect any Wi-Fi 6E-capable router to have a 5GHz band, and likely a 2.4GHz band, built-in. In other words, it will be a tri-band router.
Yes, we have existing tri-band broadcasters — like the Asus GT-AX11000, Netgear RAX200, or TP-Link AX11000 — but they all have one 2.4GHz band and two 5GHz bands, mostly to address the bandwidth issue.
In other words, traditional tri-band broadcasters of Wi-Fi 5 or Wi-Fi 6 standards have an additional 5Ghz band. Each of the 5GHz bands occupies half of the band’s spectrum, called upper and lower channels.
On the other hand, a Wi-Fi 6E broadcaster needs all three bands — 2.4Ghz +5GHz +6GHz, each occupying the band’s entire spectrum — to be compatible with all existing and future devices.
(Come to think about it. We might find quad-band routers in the future — those supporting Wi-Fi 6E with an additional 5GHz or 6GHz band.)
Since a Wi-Fi connection always takes place in a single band at a time, up to late 2020, we only needed dual-band clients (2.4GHz + 5GHz). With the 6GHz band’s availability, new and upcoming Wi-Fi receivers will likely also be tri-band (2.4GHz + 5GHz + 6GHz).
(Indeed, all Wi-Fi 6E clients — more below — I’ve been working with indeed have this tri-band configuration.)
The reason is for the 6GHz band to be successfully adopted, networking vendors need to keep devices compatible, regardless of the Wi-Fi frequencies being available at any given time. And incorporating multiple bands within the hardware is the only way to achieve that.
Wi-Fi 6E’s second major shortcoming: Much shorter range
Higher frequencies always mean shorter radio broadcasting ranges: FM and AM radio stations broadcast much lower frequencies than Wi-Fi.
The 5GHz band clearly has a shorter range than that of the 2.4GHz one. So, naturally, the 6GHz band’s range will be behind that of the 5GHz band.
Of course, this assumes that the 6GHz will use the same power level (dBm) as existing bands since more power can compensate for the higher frequency.
For now, the power level of Wi-Fi 6E is still somewhat hush-hush, but similar to the 5GHz case, you can expect the 6GHz band to be regulated — it won’t get the spectrum or power freedom vendors and consumers would like. (And that’s a good thing!)
In my real-world experience, Wi-Fi 6E has nothing to call mom so far in terms of coverage.
The photos above and below were taken when I placed the two phones exactly 45 feet (14 m) away from the RAXE500 within the line of sight. You’ll note how the 5GHz band has much better signal strength — the bars — and negotiated speed than the 6GHz. (They were the same when I used the Asus GT-AXE11000, by the way.)
This band will evolve, but for now, I’d say that the 6GHz has about 70 percent of the 5GHz range in an open space. If you place the receiver behind a wall, that number now reduces to 60 percent or even just half.
Indeed, the 6GHz can’t penetrate thick objects very well. This is the reason why we’ll never see the 2.4GHz band, which has the best range, go away any time soon, if at all.
This short-range is not a huge issue if you live in a small and open house. However, it will make the 6GHz a terrible choice as the backhaul band for a large-area mesh system. I’d be concerned if I were TP-Link, who seemed to have invested heavily in Wi-Fi 6E for its upcoming mesh sets.
And finally, another obvious shortcoming of Wi-Fi 6E is the cost.
Tri-band and quad-band hardware require more materials and sure will be more expensive. Again, keep in mind you need both broadcasters and clients of the same standard to enjoy Wi-Fi 6E.
(Those new Wi-Fi 6E routers I mentioned in this post are among the most expensive single Wi-Fi broadcasters, starting at $550 apiece.)
When can I see real Wi-Fi 6E hardware?
Right now, if you want. But it’s just not worth the cost. Not yet.
Early 2021, the Wi-Fi Alliance launched the Wi-Fi 6E certification program. That doesn’t mean all hardware variants are immediately certified, however, and they sure are not. But you can find them now. The certification is just a matter of firmware.
Right now, on the broadcaster side, there is just a handful, including the Asus GT-AXE11000 and the Netgear RAXE500. Both have proved to be excellent routers in my trials, even when you count the support for the 6GHz band out. Soon enough, you’ll see more routers from different networking vendors.
On the side of clients, again, the Samsung S21 Ultra is the only official choice. The phone uses the BCM4389 mobile chip from Broadcom and has worked very well in my testing.
On top of that, you can upgrade a Windows computer using the Intel AX210 chip. In this case, the Wi-Fi 6E adapter has been hit or miss.
Extra: The curious case of the Intel AX210 Wi-Fi 6E chip
Both Intel and Microsoft haven’t decided to support the 6GHz band fully — they are expected to do so by the end of 2021 –, so this AX210 Wi-Fi 6E chip does not have the official software drivers yet.
There are “tricks” to make Wi-Fi 6E works in Windows 10 via registry hacks, but I’d recommend against doing that sort of thing. Patience is a virtue.
The only way to make the AX210 chip work right now, albeit still not super well, is to join the free Windows Insider Program and install the latest pre-release version of Windows 10. But that’s too much work for something that doesn’t make a huge difference — Wi-Fi 6E has the same speed as Wi-Fi 6.
Update: Not patient and doesn’t want to mess with pre-release Windows 10? Well, you’re in luck. I extracted the official driver from a supported Windows 10 Build and posted that, plus the instruction on installing it on any Windows 10 version in this post.
At this rate, though, Wi-Fi 6E will soon be adopted and certified by the end of 2021 by major parties involved. And only then you’ll see more clients.
That said, it’s safe to say with some effort, you’ll be able to experience Wi-Fi 6E sometime in 2021. How that experience turns out depends on many things, including firmware and software drivers on both sides (broadcasters and clients).
In a sentence, Wi-Fi 6E equals consistently fast Wi-Fi 6 speeds at a close range via an all-new 6GHz frequency band.
Wi-Fi 6E is not entirely better (or worse) than Wi-Fi 6. It’s just an additional option, applicable to certain situations.
And the new wireless standard is here in limited options. Realistically, 2022 is the likely earliest time when Wi-Fi 6E really plays a meaningful role in daily life.
When it comes to Wi-Fi, it’s always getting connected at the time of need and not having the latest and greatest that matters. And for the former, the existing 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands will do for a long time.
Think about it, 5GHz has been out for more than a decade, and the 2.4GHz has never come even close to disappearing — it never will. The 6GHz will be the same. It’s an additional band that’s not meant to replace anything. There’s no need to rush to upgrade.
(It’s like we’ll never ditch the traditional bicycle when EVs are the new trend today. All will remains as options for different needs.)
Here’s something interesting: As more devices support the new 6GHz bands, the other two (2.4Ghz and 5GHz) will be less congested. So the addition of Wi-Fi 6E is a win-win for both new and old equipment alike.
That said, don’t hold your breath and wait for Wi-Fi 6E. Go ahead and get the equipment that serves your needs today.
It’s always a good idea to give a new standard some time to fully mature before upgrading to it anyway. That’s it if you ever need to upgrade at all proactively.